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Join Us At Tempo Documentary Festival 2017

Please join Influence Film Club for extended discussions with the filmmakers following these three exciting documentaries at Tempo Documentary Festival:

THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED: A gang of Afghan kids from the Kuchi tribe dig out old Soviet mines and sell the explosives to children working in a lapis lazuli mine. When not dreaming of the time when American troops finally withdraw from their land, another gang of children keeps tight control on the caravans smuggling the blue gemstones through the arid mountains of Pamir. In this seamless blend of fictional and documentary form, we experience a stunning cinematic journey into the beauty of war-tormented Afghanistan. Shot over seven years on evocative 16mm footage, first-time director Pieter-Jan De Pue paints a whimsical yet haunting look at the condition of Afghanistan left for the next generation. With director Pieter-Jan De Pue on Tuesday 7 March 17:30-19:30 at Victoria.

CHEER UP takes us into the teenage lives of a team of cheerleaders from the Arctic Circle in Finland, who always seem to place last.  They struggle to improve and try their best to look perfect doing it, but really, teenage life can be tough for these girls. For Patricia, Aino and Miia, finding out who they are,  where they belong and what family means is much more important than any trophy. With director Christy Garland on Thursday 9 March 17:30-19:30 at Victoria.

GAZA SURF CLUB: Caught between Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip has been called “the world’s largest open-air prison.” But Gaza is also bordered by the Mediterranean, and drawing a new generation to the country’s coastline to taste freedom in the rolling surf. This heartfelt documentary takes us into the world of Gaza’s surfing enthusiasts and reveals a formidable resilience pulsing within a beleaguered population. With directors Philip Gnadt & Mickey Yamine on Friday 10 March 17:30-19:30 at Victoria.

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Spot in Directors: Frank Pavich

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a name that brings excitement to the ears of any hardcore film nerd. His psychomagical masterpieces are leave viewers awestruck, and our film of the month reveals to audiences everywhere that one of these masterpieces never saw the light of day – unless of course you consider the tremendous impact its conception has had on the sci-fi genre ever since. Ever seen Alien? How about Star Wars? This documentary will convince you we ought to be tipping our hat, in part, to Jodorowsky for their aesthetics. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE shines a light on the inspiring brilliance, and madness, of one of cinema’s greatest minds and we had the pleasure of interviewing director Frank Pavich discussing his portrait of the greatest movie never made.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

For me, a documentary film seems a more feasible way to go. I can have an idea or find a story that is compelling, and very quickly, with a small crew, can start working on it almost immediately. The nature of documentary film allows for a more hunt-and-peck method of work as opposed to necessitating a screenplay to be written and roles to be cast, for example. We can explore as we shoot and edit, finding the story as we progress along.

For a pre-scripted film, everything, including the money, needs to be lined up before the first frame is shot. So making a documentary feels like a more realistic way for me to be able to work.

How did you find out about the story of “Dune”? And what ultimately led you to Alejandro Jodorowsky? Is the story of how you met anything as random and fantastical as the many introductions Jodorowsky describes in the film?

It’s a story that has obviously been around for a while, mentioned in books here or there, but it was not terribly well-known. There was a documentary made about Alejandro many years ago called CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY and that’s where I first saw a glimpse of his famous DUNE book. The DUNE story was only touched on for a few minutes, but it was fascinating.

I’m not sure if there was anything exactly magical about that first meeting – aside from the fact that I was in ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY’S HOUSE! The whole thing was all very Jodorowskian of course. I think he had fun torturing me by placing that huge book on the table between us, but never inviting me to open it. So mean!  

As you can tell from what he says in the film, he makes his choices based on his instincts. We can see it in how he chose his Spiritual Warriors.  And I think it was the same way between us. To this day he has never asked me what other films I’ve made and he has never asked to see any work of mine. He made his decision purely on that meeting.

Then again, he also now says that he agreed to sit for my interviews because he simply never thought that I would complete the film! So he thought there was no harm in laying himself out there for something that would never see the light of day anyway!

Jodorowsky is an incredible storyteller, and at every turn the story of the pre-production of “Dune” becomes increasingly extraordinary. How much of the story do you think has become mythologized, if any at all?

That’s a good question! It’s funny, but every time I was about to hit my limit of belief, there would be someone else to corroborate his tales. For example, the story he told about meeting Pink Floyd, where he yelled at them for eating their lunch as opposed to speaking with him, was almost too hilarious to have actually happened. But then we spoke with his co-producer, Jean-Paul Gibon, who was there at the meeting, and he could verify that it was in fact all true!  

The same goes for the Dali stories. Michel Seydoux verified all of that craziness. And in fact, it’s an even wilder and longer tale.  Michel told us about how they had to bring Dali gifts with representations of hippopotamuses for some unknown reason. They also once got stuck in a rowboat, being towed around a lake by Dali’s larger boat, with black smoke spewing into their faces and choking them for the whole ride. Seydoux said that he almost died that day while Dali and his wife sat comfortably in their lounge chairs aboard the larger boat.

So the reality is that there are even weirder tales that we just couldn’t fit in our film.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people having around the film?

Well, there’s obviously the surface-level story of the never-made film. So naturally, people quite often express their disappointment that his DUNE was thwarted. But what’s really interesting to me is that so many people find the documentary to be inspirational.  

I see it all the time on Twitter or on blog postings or even articles here and there. A big conversation is about how after watching the film, people find themselves inspired to go further. And really, what’s better than an outcome like that?

Often after watching documentaries, people want to take action. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is not a social impact film, but as you say many people walk away from the film inspired. How would you recommend audience members harness the inspiration they feel after watching the film?

That really comes down to the person. Alejandro is an artist, so I assume that many artists may be inspired by his words. But I hope that his thoughts and ideas go further than that. Artist or not, I believe that everyone can take something from his endless supply of positivity. Hopefully the common thread is that viewers walk away feeling that they can do anything, and then they try. That’s the moral to the story, right? It all comes down to Jodo’s final words about DUNE, where he says, “We have to try.”

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

Hmmm, interesting!  Well, I always thought that JODOROWSKY’S DUNE would be a great film to screen on the first day of film school.  

But everything needs a counterbalance, so taking that into account, I would say that OVERNIGHT (2003) is the great cautionary filmic tale of our time.  It’s a story about the ambition but with none of the self-awareness, none of the artistry and none of the humility (or humanity) that Alejandro possesses.  It’s truly a remarkable film.

To stick with some of those same themes, I might suggest two of the obvious ones, HEARTS OF DARKNESS (1991) and BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982).  These are two wonderful documentaries about two fantastic films that were completed against unimaginable odds.  

To take a left turn, I might suggest THE TARGET SHOOTS FIRST (2000).  It’s a really great and not terribly well-known film made by a guy who used to work at Columbia House Records in the mid-90s.  He would go onto work every day with a video camera and he would just film his day and his coworkers.  It’s amazing look at a world that no longer exists.

And maybe I would take a further left turn with HATED: GG ALLIN AND THE MURDER JUNKIES (1994).  There is no one like Alejandro Jodorowsky and there was certainly no one like GG, although I do not think that the two of them would get along!  This is the first film by Todd Phillips who went on to make R-rated comedies like OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER, which is sort of wild.  If you can make it past the opening image, you’ll in for a ride.  

Lastly, I would have to list GIMME SHELTER (1970), perhaps my favorite documentary film of all time.  There is a slight connection to that film as when I started working on DUNE, I was living in NY, in an apartment previously occupied by the great Charlotte Zwerin, a frequent collaborator with the Maysles and the editor and co-director of GIMME SHELTER.  Perhaps her spirit embedded itself into my work?

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Jodorowsky’s Dune s Influence Film Club’s featured film for December 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletters and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Kirby Dick

What can we say? Kirby Dick is a director truly after our heart. Not only does he make incredibly powerful films about challenging topics that matter, he is a champion of discussion as a tool for change-making. It was for this reason that we are proud to present his films THE INVISIBLE WAR – in collaboration with MUBI – and THE HUNTING GROUND as our films of the month for November.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I find the unpredictability of the process very stimulating.  

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?  

My films have always focused on people who are outsiders, who critique established norms. I’ve made films about survivors of priest abuse trying to change the culture of complicity and cover-up in the catholic church; U.S. military veterans challenging the Pentagon over sexual assault; students launching legal suits against their institutions in order to make them safer for future generations; independent filmmakers speaking out against a biased U.S. movie rating system dominating the world film market; and of course, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who challenged established thinking and ideologies with his deconstructive critique.

We’ve talked before about your process of making films, screening early versions to small groups and listening to the conversations they generate as a way of gauging what the film communicates and how to develop it further. Can you discuss the importance of having these conversations? And your thoughts on the importance of discussion of documentaries in general?

As a documentary filmmaker, you become extremely familiar with the footage you’ve shot. This is good in that it helps you think through and understand what you have, but it becomes a challenge because you come to see the footage in a much different way than an audience who is seeing the film for the first time.  Not only are you not seeing the material for the first time, but your understanding of the material is influenced by your experience of shooting the footage, by all the footage that you shot but is not in the cut, and by your often quite close relationship with the subjects.  

During the editing process, an important way to get a sense of how audiences are seeing the material is to have periodic screenings of the cuts, which is something more and more documentary filmmakers are doing.  I have a very specific protocol that I follow which has been invaluable for me.  I generally do at least 10 screenings over the course of the editing process.  I like the audience for a screening to be somewhere between 8 and 20 people, so there is a feeling of intimacy. Then I invite friends or friends of friends, but I don’t limit it to filmmakers, and, most importantly, I don’t invite people who’ve already seen a cut of the film.  

Once the film is screened, I ask for comments.  After someone has spoken, rather than responding myself, I ask for others to respond.  I encourage the audience to engage in deep discussions on the content, political implications, aesthetics, and technical filmmaking aspects.  Often these discussions are so profound and stimulating that they help me see the material and my films in ways that I hadn’t considered, and the films become better because of that.

Can you tell us a bit about the impact campaign around THE HUNTING GROUND and THE INVISIBLE WAR. Has there been any specific moment, achievement, or change that you are the most proud of?

There have been many exceptional and gratifying moments.  A few that come to mind are for The Invisible War are: Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Pancetta announcing significant policy changes just two days after watching The Invisible War to announce significant military policy changes; the military screening the film to millions of its troops (it’s now a training tool on most bases); having retired soldiers come up to me and thank me for the film and tell me how it has helped change culture in the military;  a packed Congressional hearing room with generals, admirals, and many of the US’s most powerful senators all referencing and praising the film as they discussed reforms.  

For The Hunting Ground, some of these moments are: Governor Brown of California signing legislation to extend the statute of limitation for rape, something which reformers had been trying to accomplish for decades and something our film helped make possible; the film screening on thousands of colleges and universities and sparking change at each of those campuses; Vice President Joe Biden introducing our film and Lady Gaga at the Oscars and her receiving a standing ovation following her powerful performance of the film’s song alongside 50 survivors onstage, many of whom had appeared in our film. We received emails from around the globe for weeks following the Oscars from survivors and advocates saying it was a watershed historic moment in the victim’s rights movement.  

No one is “pro-rape”, yet these films highlight major shortcomings in two major pillars in American culture – the military and higher education. Have you experienced any resistance to the films that you didn’t expect? How have you met that resistance.

Actually, rapists are “pro-rape,” and I think individually these (nearly all) men create an environment where they can continue to rape by demeaning women, questioning whether survivors are telling the truth, and disparaging systematic critiques of the institutions they are a part of.  No surprise there.  But we were initially surprised by attempts to discredit the film that came from some in the more “liberal” institutions, like the press and the law, which was an indication how pervasive the denial of rape is in our culture.  However, since The Invisible War premiered in 2012 the films’ and our efforts to promote their message-combined with ongoing student activism, powerful voices in the press, and the Obama administration’s strong public position on campus sexual assault- has caused a historic change in how our culture views rape.  But there continues to be strong countervailing forces (as embodied by one of the candidates in the US election) and this battle is far from won.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around these two films? Have they stirred up some strong opinions?

For the first time in our country’s history we are acknowledging how widespread sexual assault is, and we are beginning to place the blame for these violent crimes on the perpetrators instead of the victims. The military, to its credit, did not attack The Invisible War, but rather chose to heed it’s critique and use the film as a training tool.  There has been some backlash from a few of the institutions that were criticized in The Hunting Ground. This isn’t surprising, they are reacting defensively by attacking the messenger and denying there is a problem rather than addressing the problem. This response is proof that we’ve touched a nerve, that we’ve uncovered something these institutions don’t want exposed.  Most institutions are embracing the film – the film has screened on more than 1,000 campuses to date.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching THE INVISIBLE WAR or THE HUNTING GROUND?

Encourage others to watch the films as they are game changers and change hearts and minds. Parents and students should all watch The Hunting Ground, as it provides information they are not getting from anywhere else – and all military personnel should watch Invisible War. For additional actions, see our films’ websites:

http://www.thehuntinggroundfilm.com/ and http://invisiblewarmovie.com/

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Sisters in Law, The InterruptersF is for Fake, Roger & Me, and Land without Bread

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Interview by Isis Graham

THE INVISIBLE WAR – co-presented by MUBI– and THE HUNTING GROUND are Influence Film Club’s featured films for November 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletters and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

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Our November Film of the Month is co-presented by MUBI. As a gift to our North American North American Audiences, we are providing a free 60 day trial and access to our film of the month, The Invisible War, for the month of November.

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Spot on Producers: Sarah Mosses

Sarah Mosses is a force to be reckoned with, and we here at Influence Film have been lucky enough to work with her on a number of occasions, including on our film of the month THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST (the film is proudly supported by our affiliate Influence Film Features). One of the many passions we share with Sarah is bringing people together around documentary films, in fact she very aptly she named named her consultancy “Together Films.” So, we were excited to connect with her once again and learn more about her long history as a champion for the medium we love, and learn more about how we can support the brave musicians fighting to be heard in THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I’m extremely interested in the passion, power, and excitement of real experiences. Discovering characters who have lived through extraordinary moments, and are able to tell these stories in compelling ways to an audience.


What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

My career in documentary started out with the incredible ladies at the BRITDOC Foundation; I started off working at the BRITDOC Festival way back in 2006 and then progressed up to Partnerships Manager working across the Good Pitch and BRITDOC Films Distribution slate. The projects that I worked across, such as Ping Pong and One Mile Away had strong links to social impact campaigns and the launch of the idea of an Impact Producer to support the release of these films. I loved creating new viewing experiences for audiences and bringing on partners to enable these campaigns. This followed me into setting up Together Films after I left. I now consult and mentor with various film Producers, Directors, Distributors, Exhibitors, Charities who are looking to reach new audiences. I don’t explicitly work with just socially minded content these days, but my bedrock was definitely in this area.

You work as a Producer and as an Impact Producer. Since impact production is an increasingly important aspect of documentary filmmaking, but at the same time is a rather new term for many, could you explain what it means to you and your work?

The term Impact Producer was devised when I was at BRITDOC to describe a very diverse and multidisciplinary person on the team who could support the film to ensure that it not only hit it’s commercial remit, but also delivered on the social capital possibilities. By this, did it move the audience to take some form of direct action, and if so, what action did we want them to take? Depending on the films needs this could include building up partnerships with charities who are working in your area (think Greenpeace if you film discusses climate change), through to brand engagement (for funding and reach), and advising on distribution plans to ensure that the right audiences see the film in the right place. What is crucial is both an awareness of film distribution and communications planning so that you can ensure the film is available where it can make the best change. And of course have an eye on costs and where you might be able to raise a budget to cover this extra work.

Can you tell us a bit about the impact campaign around THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST Has there been any specific moment, achievement, or change that you are the most proud of?

When reviewing what could achieved with the release of this film, we were extremely focussed on ensuring that musicians who had experienced some form of censorship could be supported. We started by making sure to promote the albums released by the musicians featured in the film. With piracy at such a high, just buying an album by a censored artists can have a great effect. More importantly we felt compelled to support musicians in a more practical manner, so we launched the Music In Exile Fund, alongside our partners at Index on Censorship. After launching at the London Film Festival, we collected donations at screenings events and were able to grant the first fellowship to Smockey, a rapper from Burkina Faso, who had his music studio fire bombed by government supporters. The funds will help him rebuild part of his studio, and provide tangible support on tour engagements across Europe, in order to help sustain his work in his home territory and expand his reach to new audiences.

The fund will be launching as a stand alone charity in 2017, and aims to support multiple musicians each year.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around this film? Has it stirred up any strong opinions?

The film has started so many conversations, and it’s interesting to meet with audiences after each event to see what has touched them the most. It was saddening to hear that a lot of people didn’t realise that this had even happened in Mali – talk of Boko Haram and ISIS had populated the news, but the Mali situation hadn’t been covered as extensively. Most were shocked at the level of violence that had occurred in the country, and the fact that music had been suppressed. Many discussed their shock at a world without music and tried to contemplate what life could be like without radio, street musicians or gigs taking place.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST?

Our first priority would be to keep buying music. Go to your local record store and buy an album from a musician that you know has been persecuted. Songhoy Blues album ‘Music in Exile’ is an incredible debut and, we have released a Soundtrack album, which includes tracks from all the musicians featured in the film. If you are feeling more generous and would be interested in donating to the Music in Exile Fund then please email hello@togetherfilms.org to find out more.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

The films I would recommend to watch alongside They Will Have To Kill Us First are Searching for Sugar ManPussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Finding Fela, and We Are Together.

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THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST is Influence Film Club’s featured films for October 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham

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Documentary Playlist: Evolve To Resolve

Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge,
aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Humans are prone to conflict. Just look at any history text and you’ll quickly find a laundry list of clashes between clans and countries, personalities and militaries, family members and brethren. But if we’ve learned anything from the past it’s that perpetual warfare does no one any favors. It is with an empathetic eye, careful consideration of concessions and a committance down the long hard road toward reparations and forgiveness that mankind may move forward.

But first, conflicts must be resolved. In some cases communities can transform through the dedication of courageous individuals willing to take a radical approach such as the streetwise Chicago group at the center Steve James’ THE INTERRUPTERS who employ their former involvement in violence and crime to dissuade others. Or Grace Lee Boggs whose story is told in AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY: THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS, a pioneering first generation Chinese-American political activist and champion of the Black Power movement who continued to blaze a transformative path until she reached 100 years old.

Sometimes things become so intolerable for both sides of a conflict, that to continue fighting would be irreparably detrimental. Thus, pride must be swallowed and a truce must be sought in salvageable compromise. The ordinary Liberian women who populate Gini Reticker’s PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL become so fed up with the ongoing civil war in their country that they reach out to one another to bring an end to the conflicts and a new, peaceful start for their people, while in Lisa Fruchtman and Rob Fruchtman’s SWEET DREAMS a remarkable group of Rwandan women emerge from the devastation of the 1994 genocide to forge a new future for themselves through the therapeutic nature of drumming and the soul-soothing virtues of ice cream entrepreneurship. Compromises are made and the long process of reconciliation begins.

For some, that process can painfully linger for decades. Joshua Oppenheimer’s unflinching THE LOOK OF SILENCE deals explicitly with the inability of the people who lived through the Indonesian mass killings of ‘65-’66 to reconcile with the horrific events that tore communities apart and left victims to live amongst the murderers that took the lives of their kin. And while not as emotionally charged, Fredrik Gertten’s BIKES VS CARS attempts to reconcile a world in which the car industry is wreaking havoc on our environment while bikes remain overlooked as an obvious solution for clean and sustainable daily transportation.

Conflict resolution may not be easy, but it is of utmost necessity if we wish to see peace for the generations to come in our wake. These six films form a framework of empathy and reconciliation to strive for by example.

The Interrupters
THE INTERRUPTERS tells the moving and surprising story of three brave people who aim to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. This film is an intimate view of violence, its causes, and its interrupters.

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
By plunging us into writer, activist, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs’s lifetime of vital thinking and action, and traversing the major U.S. social movements of the last century, AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY: THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS takes us on a journey into the power of ideas and the necessity of expansive, imaginative thinking to propel societal change.

Sweet Dreams
SWEET DREAMS follows a remarkable group of Rwandan women as they emerge from the devastation of the 1994 genocide to create a new future for themselves through drumming and ice cream. In the words of Kiki Katese, the founding member, “Because of our history, people know how to fight against, but not for. We want to change that equation.”

Pray the Devil Back to Hell
PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL chronicles the story of the Liberian women who came together to end war and bring peace to their country. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters demanded a resolution to the country’s civil war.

The Look of Silence
Through its footage of perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide in THE ACT OF KILLING, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered and the identities of the killers. THE LOOK OF SILENCE serves as a powerful companion piece that initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

Bikes vs. Cars
BIKES VS CARS investigates the daily global drama in traffic around the world, meeting with bike activists in Sao Paulo and Los Angeles who struggle to be granted space, and surveying cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where cycling is an integral part of city life, all while contemplating the revolutionary changes possible if more cities moved away from car-centric models.

 

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Spot on Directors: Johanna Schwartz

Director Johanna Schwartz was planning to attend the 2013 “Festival au Désert” music festival in Mali when she learned about the controversial music ban imposed in the north of the country under the newly instated Sharia law. Having spent more than a decade documenting life and culture on the African continent, she felt compelled to travel to Mali nonetheless, and thus began her journey filming THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST: MALIAN MUSIC IN EXILE.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

I have always been drawn to filmmaking in general as a way to tell stories. Film can engage so many people in so many unique ways. But I became specifically interested in Documentary during film school. At that time there was no such thing as a documentary feature film in the cinema, or short form documentary online. There was only broadcast. But even so, I found that the stories I was able to tell using documentary were far more powerful than the stories I could tell on the fictional side. I realised that I could create a bigger impact, that documentary had a kind of power that narrative film did not. It captivated me and I never looked back. The industry has changed so much in the past 20 years, but the power of documentary hasn’t diminished.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I spent a long time working to commission in British television, taking any job that came across my desk. Archaeology, History and Environmental issue films were my bread and butter. I had to work to live, and television provided me with many opportunities to do so. I was definitely drawn more to issue-based films, but with every passing year the call for these kinds of films shrunk and the competition to direct them grew. Even the commissions I did get were never entirely satisfying. I realized that if I wanted to make the kinds of films that really excited me, I would need to leave TV and enter the world of independent film. It was scary, but it paid off, and I have found my passion – stories where music and geopolitics collide. These are the stories that I am now pursuing full time.

How did you get to know the musicians in the film? Were there any other musicians that you wished you could feature but that there wasn’t time for?

We interviewed perhaps double the amount of musicians than we needed. Meeting them was not difficult at all. I enjoyed meeting all of them but felt very strongly that the musicians we featured within the film had to have a deeply personal connection to the conflict and had to move the plot along at every turn. Every character in the film is there for a reason, their story is laid out for our audiences for a reason. We wanted to tell all sides to the story, not just one. Not everyone in the film makes good decisions, not everyone is a “hero”. This was extremely important to me.

You artfully weave together the story of a delicate political situation and very upbeat joyful music. How does the film communicate how intrinsically music and human rights are intertwined?

I hope that the film communicates how the musicians feel themselves. I don’t wish to communicate what I feel, rather, what they feel. The musicians all speak of how vital music is in Malian society, and it was our job to find a way to make the audience feel that too. It’s not enough to just hear the words. Filmmaking is a language. And we used this language to convey so many complex emotions had by these incredible musicians.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around this film? Has it stirred up any strong opinions?

The film is about so many things. Earlier today I sat with a group of American university students and they went around in turn talking about their favourite moment in the film. I was so proud that they were taking different things away from it, and this has been my experience at every Q&A. For some, the story of Songhoy Blues’ rise to success and their perseverance and bravery is the most powerful aspect. For others, it is the moment where Moussa describes how tourists are afraid of him and think he might be a terrorist for wearing a head scarf, and how this opens up an understanding about Islam and extremism. For others, the story is about women and their immensely important role in the unfolding narrative. For others, this is a story about refugees… The film has many layers and is not about one thing or another, just like life.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST?

Please visit our website and take action. You can buy a CD/digital download of one of the artists, or indeed the soundtrack to the film featuring all of them. You can recommend the film to a friend. You can buy Andy Morgan’s book “Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali” to learn more. You can donate to the Music In Exile Fund which helps persecuted musicians around the world. There are so many ways to become involved, but most importantly, talk about these issues with other people. Talk about musical freedom of expression, talk about extremism, talk about Mali. Lets keep this conversation alive and spreading.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

I won’t list my favourites as that list is constantly changing (Werner Herzog is always on there somewhere), but if you like this film and want to continue on the musical theme, I would recommend Searching for Sugarman; Anvil! The story of Anvil; Súme: The sound of a revolution; The Punk Syndrome…there are so many great music documentaries (just google ‘best music docs of all time’) but I have to say I like the ones that show a side of the music industry, or of musicians themselves that is surprising, sometimes dark but always brilliant.

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THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST is Influence Film Club’s featured films for October 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Christopher Walker

As current events and news cycles attest, we are living in a time of increased political and religious extremism. While extremism appears in different forms, it is essentially a radicalism that extends beyond rational thought and the bounds of normal reason. It generates a space where dialogue and debate have no place, as those advocating their views in extreme forms lack an ability to hear another side, perspective, or point of view. The danger of extremism and the ideologies associated with it rests on radicalized divisiveness, separatism, and in its worst forms, violence against those who fall outside one’s own group or belief system.

We discussed our August film of the month WELCOME TO LEITH with director Christopher Walker. He and his co-director Michael Beach Nichols provide an unflinching look at Leith, North Dakota, where white supremacists attempt to secure a foothold in the small American town in order to spread their extremist ideology.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I am interested in the human condition. The understanding of people and exploring extraordinary circumstances they may be going through.  I feel like this is all tied into trying to understand myself more clearly.

Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I began my career as an editor, which is something I have been interested in most of my life – I like the feeling of putting things together, the satisfaction of a completed project. In my early work as an editor I worked primarily on documentaries with an overt social issue bend.  I feel like working on these types of films informed my current sensibilities as a director. There is an importance and place for these films but I have strayed away from this. I’ve grown to approach films with strong subjects or characters which lend to verité filming, letting scenes play out as a scripted film would. We as documentary filmmakers need to give our audiences more credit, the less hand holding the better. I like to remove the stigma of documentary as only a champion for causes or issues. We lose the art of the medium if we ignore the vast tools that filmmaking allows us to utilize.

How and your co-director, Michael Beach Nichols, came across the story of what was happening in the New York Times. How did this discovery develop into a documentary? 

My co-Director Michael Beach Nichols and I had been scouring the news for stories that could be interesting as feature documentaries.  When Michael came across the story in Leith, we thought it could have a lot of potential.  It was certainly something that most filmmakers would look at as a goldmine of compelling story and characters. We followed the story as it slowly developed, but it wasn’t until we read that Kynan Dutton (a white separatist), his wife and five children had heeded Craig Cobb’s call and moved out to Leith to begin work on his vision of an all white enclave that we decided to take action.

We called Leith Mayor Ryan Schock to see if he would be open to two filmmakers coming out to capture what was happening, he agreed to it and started spreading the word of our arrival. Our initial plan was to make a short doc. We weren’t sure how far Cobb would get, or if his plans would quickly fizzle out. We spent ten days in Leith, filming with anyone we could, including Kynan Dutton, Mayor Schock, his wife Michele, Gregory Bruce – as well as Lee and Heather Cook, who lived across the street from Cobb and Dutton. It was unfortunate to learn that Cobb wasn’t in town while we filmed that first trip, he was on the east coast for a talk show taping which would later become an infamous viral video.  The week after Michael and I returned to New York City we learned of Cobb and Kynan’s arrest for an armed patrol of Leith.  We knew then that this had the legs for a feature documentary.

You incorporate footage collected from many different sources throughout the film, and interview people involved in the story coming from a wide-range of perspectives – creating what feels like a balanced view of what unfolded. Do you think that this is an accurate take away? And how was it for you as  a director working with something so sensitive to engage with all the different players in the film and present their perspectives in the way that you did?

Our initial conception of the film was to shoot with as many people from the town as possible, being that the town had 24 residents, this didn’t seem too much of a stretch. With this idea, we also felt strongly that we would not make the film if we could not speak with both sides of the issue and give each side ample screen time to give their points of view.  There are too many films that take an overt side, losing subtlety and nuance to issues that are more than just black and white – we searched for the grey areas. We made sure to keep our personal feelings out of it. We set out to make a film which presented both sides of a very sensitive issue and let the viewer make their own conclusions, and also challenge them along the way.

In the months of making this film we were lucky to find that the town residents, as well as Craig Cobb’s camp, had been filming each other. This was a huge blessing in terms of pivotal scenes that we weren’t there to film, the armed patrol being the most important.  With all this footage from both sides we were able to put together an objective film that honored our initial intent as filmmakers as well as a more compelling and rounded out documentary.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

One of the more interesting things I have noticed since the release of the film is the utter shock that something like this could happen in America these days. In more intimate settings, people have questioned what they would have done if it had been their community while also acknowledging the First Amendment as important in protecting all Americans. Can we pick and choose what viewpoints are and aren’t allowed in a free society as long as these views don’t impinge on others?

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching WELCOME TO LEITH?

People often ask us what they can do to stop people like Cobb from doing something like this again – and the answer is honestly hard to come to. The cleverness Cobb employed in buying property allowed him to use the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to protect himself from housing discrimination based on religion, color and creed. This speaks to how America operates. Democracy is messy!

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

Harlan County U.S.A, Salesman, Sherman’s March, Thin Blue Line, Brother’s Keeper, Paris is Burning.

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WELCOME TO LEITH is Influence Film Club’s featured films for August 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview: Isis Marina  Graham

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Spot on Directors: Robert Gordon

This month, Influence Film Club is featuring BEST OF ENEMIES as our featured film, so we caught up with co-director Robert Gordon to discuss his work. Together with his co-director Morgan Neville (and the skillful editing of our friend Aaron Wickenden), Gordon looks at the historical U.S. television event of 1968 when William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal squared off in public debate. This televised debate marked a new era in public discourse and television programming. Both leading authors and intellectuals, the two men took place in what would greatly shape today’s media spectacle, for better or worse. Both masters of debate in their own right, they didn’t always keep their cool, and we stand to learn as much from their mistakes as from their skillful methods of argumentation.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

Truth, being stranger than fiction, proves a compelling way to share stories of how societies become what they are. As a lapsed fiction writer, I find the constraints of documentary—that constraint being the facts—make for a more challenging way to work. Instead of manufacturing events, we have to build powerful narratives from the random realities of what really happened.

What is your history with documentary? How does it intersect with your career as a writer? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout both?

I knew I’d tell stories, but I thought I’d write novels. Then, in my early 20s, I found that no one was interested in my fiction, but that people liked to hear the stories of things that happened to me in Memphis, my home. There, I’d become involved with artists and musicians from earlier eras, and began to see how geography and economics and commerce all had huge influences on art. Art may be ideas, but the influences that create it are myriad, and the holistic picture of all the forces interacting is more interesting than the individual element out of context.

You had a wealth of archive footage at your fingertips when it came to making BEST OF ENEMIES. What was it like working with this footage, what were its strengths and limitations? 

I can’t think of any limitations—it was just a blast. As it was coming in, the editors would post their favorite finds of the day and they were always great. From the beginning, the assemblies that came out of the editing room, archive heavy, were thrilling. We edited for months and months and then when we made the HD transfers of the film footage, there were images in the footage that we never realized were there. Sometimes sound effects had to be changed. We thought Gore was tossing a book on a table and had a thunk in the track, but when the HD transfer came in, it turned out the table was a sofa! So it’s no exaggeration to say that watching the HD transfer was really, even after months of editing, like seeing all the footage anew.

How do you think the film serves as a metaphor for the current political climate in the United States?

That’s both the easiest and the most difficult question. In the simplest way, our film is two opposing political forces that believe the other is going to ruin the country. But it gets more complicated when you consider that Buckley and Vidal actually engaged in dialogue, responding to what the other said. Today, no one listens, it’s just accusations and acrimony. The fear each side has of the other is the same, the refusal to compromise is the same, but Buckley and Vidal were willing to hear what the other said and refute it. That’s why their moment is so interesting: It’s when dialog broke into two separate monologues.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

Best of Enemies manages to reflect both a horrific funhouse mirror image of where we are now, and also a hopeful model. If once people were not afraid to bare their education and intelligence on TV, perhaps that culture can return. But if even men of the highest intellectual capacities devolve into schoolyard name-calling, is there any reason for hope?

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching BEST OF ENEMIES?

Engage in real dialogue with someone who holds opposing beliefs.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

  • Sermons and Sacred Pictures—an experimental short doc that blends archival footage with new, and that develops an ethereal space somewhere between reminiscence and observance.
  • At the River I Stand—a great hour that uses archival footage to tell the powerful story of recognition for striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
  • 20 Feet From Stardom—my film partner’s master telling. This is a great example of building compelling stories within the constraint of facts.
  • When We Were Kings—a great blend of sports, music, travel and cultural collision. Context is everything.
  • Primary—conveys the innate power of observational and verité filming.
  • Senna—great storytelling through archival footage

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BEST OF ENEMIES is Influence Film Club’s featured film for July. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Jerry Rothwell

In celebration of summer and outdoor activities, Influence Film Club is embracing nature, our environment, and the act of protecting it by featuring HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD as our June film of the month. In the film, director Jerry Rothwell delves into the archives to discover the origins of Greenpeace, arguably the most well known non-governmental environmental agency in the world.

Beginning with its formation in the early 1970s and their first activist campaign in Alaska, Rothwell follows the group’s initial successes, failures, and growing pains as he pieces together old footage with contemporary recollections from the colorful cast of characters involved during the agency’s formative years. If you’ve ever wondered how to start an organization, big or small, to make a change in the world, or put a good idea into action and help it grow, watch this documentary! The Greenpeace story includes words of wisdom, guiding steps, and important lessons for all of those hoping to be world change makers, but also for anyone interested in human nature and working together toward a common goal.

After sitting down with Jerry last year at Sheffield Doc/Fest, we were excited to get his take on documentary filmmaking, transformation, and digging into the Greenpeace film archive.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I think it’s the improvisatory side of documentary that grabs me. Making a documentary is a kind of dance with the real world: you can have preconceived ideas but they always have to develop in response to the unfolding and elusive reality you are portraying. The best documentaries are a journey of discovery for the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

I heard a story about Howard Hawks recently that made me think about the differences between fiction and documentary storytelling. When Hawks adapted The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler he phoned Chandler to ask him about a detail in the plot that was puzzling him. “Who killed the chauffeur?,” he asked the writer. “Damned if I know” replied Chandler. The world of a fiction is, by definition, sealed. Documentaries, on the other hand, always refer out to the wider reality from which the story is drawn.

This means that documentary stories are always unresolved. Life goes on in the world the film is portraying. It is left to the audience to do the job of finding resolution, so documentaries have a great power to motivate their audience to engage, beyond the limits of the film, in the lives and issues they explore. It might be as simple as asking ‘What’s that person doing now?’ or ‘How does my life relate to theirs?’, but it motivates action, empathy and engagement.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

My films to date have been about very different subjects – a punk band, a lone sailor, a sperm donor, two girls from an Ethiopian village, a wine fraudster – though maybe there is a similar approach to each story. Somebody told me they thought a common theme was friendship and tested loyalty–and that may be true, though it’s not conscious. I try and find stories where there is the possibility of transformation happening on many levels–personally, interpersonally (in people’s relationships), and socially. After finishing a film, I tend to want to do something really different–in subject matter and approach–which is maybe why the themes are so varied. It’s one of the pleasures of documentary making, to plunge into an area you maybe don’t know much about and spend time with those for whom it’s an everyday experience.

Was your experience making this film like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? How was it similar or different?

Making a film where the story is historical is a different challenge to making one where events are unfolding as you shoot–and each requires its own approach. Both archive films and those shot contemporaneously require a strong relationship with the subject and inevitably the finished film is just one possible view. I tend to work in the same way for both–starting with a sense of a rough possible shape, which gradually adds detail and depth as production develops. In an archive film, watching archive for the first time is a bit like shooting–it sparks ideas and the shape of the film develops in an interaction with the material.

You had an extraordinary wealth of archive footage at your fingertips when it came to making HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD. What was it like working with this footage? What were its strengths and limitations?

Greenpeace was very supportive of our exploration of the archive and allowed us access to it without having any editorial control over the film, which was important to me. I started with the shape of a story based on Hunter’s writings, so I was looking for archive material that would help tell that narrative, but then, working with editor Jim Scott, the archive itself started to dictate how particular scenes worked. There were areas where the Greenpeace footage was very strong (for example the first anti-whaling campaign) and areas where there was very little (for example of meetings and behind-the scenes proceedings).  We did a lot of research looking for archive held by others, so maybe 30% of the archive in the film comes from other sources – news, personal archive, photos.  I think in total, including all the archive and the interviews, we had around 100 hours to work with, of which maybe 20 hours was shot by the original Greenpeace crews. There were two suitcases of quarter inch reel to reel tape which we knew was the audio to some of the footage, and reuniting those with the right pictures and synchronizing them was a labour of love.

The footage shot by the Greenpeace crews was great to work with because we were able to access the original rushes footage – good, clean 16mm – which hadn’t been already cut. That allowed us to edit the footage much more freely and to include moments before and after the point where you’d usually cut. This footage had been shot for a particular, perhaps even propagandist, effect and at one point in the film Bob Hunter talks about Greenpeace’s early campaigns as a kind of performance, so being able to play with the footage in that way helped us to explore that idea.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

We’ve now screened the film in over 40 countries and in each I’ve found myself in conversations with audiences about the dynamics of social change today: in Spain, where the anti-austerity party Podemos was entering Parliament and Catalunya was edging towards independence; in Kiev, fresh from the bloody protests in Maidan which toppled a president; in Mexico, where the missing 43 inspired a nationwide outcry against the government; and even in Britain and the US where Corbyn and Sanders were unexpectedly making discussion of socialism mainstream once again. The tensions shown in the film –  between idealism and pragmatism, vision and compromise  – currently seem to be at the forefront of people’s minds.

The conversations circle around the same dilemmas. How do we square the visionary idealism required to imagine a better world, with the pragmatic politics that might take us there?  What’s the relationship between demanding change (campaigning, protesting speaking out) and making change (through community action, government, political parties)? How does a movement relate to the organizations it gives birth to? And what part do stories and images play in this process?

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD?

For me one of the legacies of the story of the early Greenpeace is that just a handful of people who were very focused on what they wanted to achieve can have an astonishing impact. I hope their powerful example inspires people to engage in the issues that affect their communities, focus on specific things they want to change, build broad coalitions, avoid being distracted by internal politics and think big in the way they communicate about their activism.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

My list of favorite docs is constantly changing – but here are six I’d recommend today, all of them in different ways trying to explore elusive and contested truths:

The Three Rooms Of Melancholia (2004) – Pirjo Honkasalo’s lyrical and distressing film about the Chechnyan conflict

Stories We Tell (2012) – Sarah Polley’s exploration of her family’s secrets navigating the borders of fact and fiction

The Look Of Silence (2014) – Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his disturbing The Act Of Killing which is as affecting and uncompromising.

The Ark (1993)– Molly Dineen’s series about London Zoo as Thatcherite business management permeates the Royal Zoological Society.

The Thin Blue Line (1989) – Errol Morris’ film about a miscarriage of justice that playing historical events like a thriller but one with profound ambiguity.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) – a crazy, morally challenging film about war, silence and justice as Kazuo Hara follows a world war two veteran demanding answers from his military officers about the destruction of his regiment.

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HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD is Influence Film Club’s featured film for June. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Fredrik Gertten

When a child first rides a bike, freedom is the sensation that comes flooding in. I can glide atop the pavement! I can take myself places! When Aline Cavalcante and Dan Koeppel hop atop their bikes in São Paulo and L.A., they too feel that sensation. Yet somehow in their quest to take themselves where they’re going with their own power, they are making a political statement, climbing atop their activist chariots and riding bravely into the mainstream crawl of the automotive norm. Why? They live in cities where car is king.

Swedish director Fredrik Gertten lives in Malmö, Sweden and he hops on his bike every day to pedal himself to and fro. Much as in the world’s cycling capitals Copenhagen and Amsterdam, riding a bike is not a political statement or environmental stand. It’s just a practical way of going about one’s daily business, a relatively safe and reliable means of transportation.

Our film of the month for May, BIKES VS CARS takes a humanistic approach to the environmental issue of transportation. Although less cars on the road certainly leads to greener societies, the film presents a picture of the devastating and often fatal chaos that prevails in cities around the world where the automotive industry has been allowed a free hand to draw up their car-dominating urban schemes. Uncovering some of the motivating factors – both political and financial – Gertten presents a people-centric look at how we choose to get ourselves around.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

Documentaries are, most of the time, stronger than fiction. It’s also a genre with a growing audience all over the world. There are so many people around the world who want to know and understand more about the world. I have always been interested in society and human stories. When you make docs you combine a lot of interests, skills and passions. BIKES VS CARS showcases that quite well. I love bicycles, I am interested in trying to understand how the powerful do their tricks and how we can challenge that, which is quite important right now when our planet is in crisis over climate and overspending natural resources. I also love to travel and meet people, creating my own projects. I love my job.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I have done docs for more than twenty years. I came from journalism but also from a background of organizing music festivals in my city. I don’t know how to describe my thread more than passion. I have been doing films about the Malmö FF, the football team from my city, the changes of the city- including architecture, building of the bridge- and also international stories like BANANAS!* and Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Was your experience making with BIKES VS CARS like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had?

Every film is a new challenge. This film is more of an essay film, but I also wanted it to be character driven, I needed one person to carry the weight of the gridlocks, the aggression, the climate change on her shoulders. In my films I want to package information with emotions so it stays with you. The idea is that if the audience make the conclusions themselves it will stay for ever.  A lot of people tell me that they can never ever buy a Dole banana again, or that they from now on will commute on bike: I love to hear that.

What is it that drove you to tell this story? How did you come across the characters? And how did it develop?

I always been interested in city planning and what makes or breaks a good city. At this point in history most city planners know that the private car is making life in cities unbearable. People are stuck in traffic for hours every day. First I pin pointed the bigger structure of the film. I wanted to talk about how the car lobby once upon a time took over the cities and how they keep selling their ideas today. I wanted to have a young woman as a lead in the film so we started to look for her. She should be a person in development, not a classic leader. We found Aline blogging and asked for a Skype with her. I could se that she could work fine on camera. From then on it was a step-by-step process. It takes time and I am never certain of success. It’s a hard job, but with a great team of producers, cinematographers and editors everything can be possible.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

I have now met audience all over the world with this film. The very cool thing is that people everywhere starts to talk about their own city. The film inspires and works as a tool for people working for change. They might be politicians, city planners, architects, urban developers, students or just people who wants to ride their bike to work without getting killed.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is? What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching Bikes vs. Cars?

The best thing you can do for a film is to tell more people about it. Tell them to watch on a platform where to filmmakers get payed like Vimeo. For us at WG Film a film is much more than a screening. We update our Facebook and Twitter everyday with new stories about the subject matter. This community work is joyful but also quite expensive. There’s no funding at all for that work so all help we can get to help this dialog with audience around the world, the better.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

The documentary world is growing and there are so many good films coming out. Check out the films supported by Influence Film, or check the programming of festivals that have played your favorite films. In Sweden check the programming of Doc Lounge. If you like a film of one filmmaker, check out the website of the producer or distributor. You will be surprised of many great films you can find. Enjoy.

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Save 15% by using the code BikesInfluence when renting or buying BIKES VS CARS on Vimeo.

BIKES VS CARS is Influence Film Club’s featured films for May. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Geeta and Ravi V. Patel

Our film of the month for April is Influence Film Foundation supported MEET THE PATELS and we can’t get enough of this raucous romp through one of life’s rites of passage. Siblings Ravi and Geeta V. Patel introduce us to the tried and tested Indian tradition of arranged marriage, comically situated on American soil. As a first-generation Indian-American, Ravi grapples with the parts of himself that respond to the ways of the old world, while the status quo of his contemporaries also make complete sense, while his sister Geeta captures it all on film. A humorous rollercoaster ride through the amusement park of family relations, the core-shaking questions Ravi confronts resound with anyone out there who has ever contemplated marriage for themselves.

What is it that drew the two of you to make documentary film together?

Ravi: Common problems.

Geeta: As siblings, we avoid making anything together and I still don’t understand how this happened!?

Ravi: It started by accident – just as a home video. And then when we saw the chance to make something personal, something that could make an impact, it became a very exciting prospect. That said, it was very not easy at first because we have such different sensibilities and it took us a long time to learn how to deal with differences. Thanks to this process, I think we are both now better artists, and much closer as siblings.

Both work in film and television, how does your experience of making a documentary compare to your other work? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout?

Ravi: Documentaries take much longer.  I mean it’s tedious and lacking money. That sucks. But it also was film school for me. And making something that matters – I guess you could say it taught me what art is, to me.

Geeta: Documentaries have this magical element of human nature, world events, the complete unexpected and uncontrollable. It’s an experience that is like no other in that the story tells itself to you most of the time, rather than you writing it.

Documentarians often set out to make one film and end up making another – did you have a specific idea about how the film would turn out? And how did that evolve?

Ravi: We initially wanted to make this more journalistic piece, however as time went on, the vérité aspects and the intimacy of revealing our own family and community felt like the stronger film.

Geeta: The most important thing to us was to make a film that our own family would want to watch. As strange as this sounds, it’s a tall order!

How was it for both of you documenting such a personal experience? Did it bring you closer? Was there any point that you felt like you needed to stop filming, or that the film facilitated certain situations? For example, Ravi, do you think without the film as a vehicle, that you would have ever told your parents about Audrey?

Ravi: It’s hard to say what would have happened without this film, however I know that it changed my life and made all my relationships stronger.  But yeah, it’s hard, and weird  being the subject of your own film. But because I got to see myself from a third party perspective of a director and editor, I think in many ways it did help me try to change, and I guess be a better character in life. Does that make sense?

Geeta: Many times, we wanted to stop making the film. It’s a really uncomfortable and inconvenient process,  and may I just add that the camera was really heavy! This film was also a huge test of my relationship with Ravi. At one point, we thought we’d never talk to each other again. This was the point that changed everything because the lesson of the film became the lesson of our relationship: We chose to make our relationship work. We changed for each other. Now, our relationship is stronger, something new, and quite a dream.

I have to ask – what’s going on now? Have either of you found “true love”?

Ravi: Haha.. Everyone asks us that, of course. We want to keep this a mystery.

Geeta: He says that, but it’s all over social media if you google us. Patels love social media.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up any unexpected reactions?

Ravi: The film has sparked loads of discussion between parents and their kids.

Geeta: In general, people of all communities and backgrounds have been writing to us about how the film has changed how they deal with their relationships with spouses, friends, brothers, sisters, children… It’s been amazing to hear all these stories!

Ravi: The unexpected stuff: 1) I expected, or at least hoped, that Indians would love this film. I’m still shocked that it seems almost every Indian I know has seen it. That’s crazy. 2) even more unexpected is the diverse audience this film has resonated with. People are relating to it in so many ways I did not see coming.

It’s not often that a documentary can be classified as a romantic comedy, and you manage to do it so well! Many documentaries inspire people to learn more, take action or get involved in some way, and while Meet the Patels might not be your typical doc, is there anything people can do after watching the film?

Ravi: People don’t spend enough time on their relationships these days. We hope they will talk to the people they love and learn how to be in a healthy relationship. It’s really hard! I also think the main thing we are hoping people take from this film is that they just make effort in communicating with the people they love. In many ways, this film is broadly about how to love your family.

Geeta: Yes, as small a step as this sounds, it’s the key to everything in life. This film is indeed a social issue film. It’s just disguised as a funny film. This was entirely our goal and we’re so excited that it’s working.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

Ravi and Geeta: Hoop Dreams, Ghosts of Cite Soleil, Sherman’s March, Racing Dreams, Roger and Me, Waltz with Bashir

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MEET THE PATELS is Influence Film Club’s featured films for April. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one (or two) of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film(s) to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film(s), providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Documentary Playlist: Am I a Good Person?

“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?”
― David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

When is it ok to lie? Is it ever? What about those seemingly harmless little fibs we’ve all passed off as the truth once in blue moon as not to make a bad impression, to avoid insulting someone, or to shield a loved one from unnecessary grief? Are those ok? If so, where does the line begin to blur between good intentions and plain deception?

There could be a whole sub-genre of documentaries devoted to this question. Most of Errol Morris’ oeuvre is devoted to the notion of self-deception and its explication across the ripples of personal and political catastrophe, while countless other filmmakers peel back the falsehoods and fabrications of those looking to leverage their way up social ladders the world over, such as in Alex Gibney’s THE ARMSTRONG LIE, where former biking world golden boy Lance Armstrong’s long denial of using performance enhancing drugs to become the biggest name in the history of the sport is stunningly shattered. Or on a smaller scale, the ruthless door-to-door bible salesman of the Maysles Brothers’ vérité classic SALESMAN exploit low-income families by bending the truth to make that all important extra buck.

Somewhere in between is ART AND CRAFT’s art forger Mark Landis, who duplicates masterworks and donates them to museums for the sheer satisfaction of duping the pros into believing they are authentic. There is certain fear induced adrenaline rush one experiences when attempting to pull the wool over one’s eyes, as there are no guarantees and success only comes with skill. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s CATFISH plays with this notion of thrill seeking through baiting potential lovers via the digital divide. In the age of the internet, one’s identity can be almost wholly invented, while the truth is merely an option to dole out only if completely necessary. Is this entertainment or self preservation?

Some films, such as Vikram Gandhi’s Indian guru hoaxing KUMARÉ, employ deception as a means to greater, altruistic enlightenment. But lying, even with good intentions, is inherently malicious. When the truth finally comes to the fore, feelings will be hurt and trust, no matter how intimate, will be shattered. No films deal with this idea more intimately than Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL, in which the filmmaker’s own mother purposefully obscured her bloodline for the sake of protecting the immediate family unit.

Were these people right in attempting to pass off untruths as gospel? Does this make them a bad people or do their intentions exonerate them? These six films play with the idea of lying and the trick balance between decency and deceitful. Are you a good person?

Kumaré
KUMARÉ is a documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples to unveil his greatest teaching of all.

The Armstrong Lie
Sports legend Lance Armstrong’s improbable rise and ultimate fall from grace. Using interview footage from before and after Armstrong’s doping admission, THE ARMSTRONG LIE explores one of the biggest lies in sports history.

Stories We Tell
STORIES WE TELL is a highly original documentary that explores how we construct our own reality through stories. Sarah Polley’s family and friends weave different narratives into a complex portrait of her mother who died when Sarah was eleven.

Art and Craft
Beginning as a cat-and-mouse art caper concerning one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, ART AND CRAFT is rooted in questions of authorship and authenticity, eventually giving way to an intimate story of mental health and the universal need for community, appreciation, and purpose.

Salesman
SALESMAN follows four door-to-door salesmen that walk the line between hype and despair as they ply across the American Northeast and Miami trying to sell expensive Bibles to low-income families.

Catfish
In this tale of electronic attraction, love, deceit and forgiveness, the dark reality of how far one woman was willing to go to soothe her emotional aches and pains is unearthed, and CATFISH asks the question: what exactly can we trust in this age of virtual connections?

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